May 20th, 2006

krazy koati

I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea

The Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research is a good-sized place with a small public display hidden by its odd location, around a corner from a less-popular floor away from the science library. But they sent invitations offering guided tours for International Museum Day, which runs from 18 May to 28 May, and stretches the definition of ``day'' far past reasonable limits. Why not simply International Museum Week? I don't know, I never heard of it either. The Museum is devoted to Southeast Asian biodiversity and the impressive wildlife that used to live in Singapore. They have taxidermy exhibits of animals, some of which are thought to still live in the nature reserves or nearby islands. The animals give a sense of morbidity that's hard to escape; at best, each of the animals represents death from natural causes, and many were killed by accidents or were shot to become exhibits. Combined with few visitors and it's not quite comfortable, but when the group (about six people) assembled and a docent started speaking it cheered up considerably.

Animals on display range from creatures Sir Stamford Raffles catalogued, like the binturong, the moon rat, or the bamboo rat, which is the size of a small labrador retriever. There was a tapir, with a very old card dating it to 1913, and done in that style that looks like a vaudeville announcement. A sunda pangolin was pointed out as a creature that now and then wanders in to apartment complexes near the nature reserve, making people wonder what the heck they just saw. There's otters (shortclawed and smooth), Malay sun bears, leopard cats and a dugong that looked very plastic because, it turns out, that was a fiberglass replica.

Some exhibits showed an odd bit of humor, like placing a king cobra -- coiled up and still bigger than a fire hose -- next to an array of civets. The palm civet's card claims it's ``still fairly common in Singapore where it is known to live in the roof space of houses, and has been seen walking on telegraph cables at night,'' raising the question of how old the card is. There's a fascinating and under-explained display about peat swamp forests, where conditions produce oxidized sulphates and inorganic acids lowering the pH of the water to 3.3 -- and the docent said she'd been in one with a pH of 2. She described looking in one for samples as having been disgusting -- the water was brackish and opaque -- but tingling once she entered, and after a while she felt clean, ``like an acid bath,'' a simile both accurate and inadequate.

Trivia: Jacob Bigelow's Florula Bostoniensis, 1814, was the first systematic description of New England plants (or at least plants found within ten miles of Boston), and through revisions was the only one until the 1840s. Source: Yankee Science in the Making, Dirk J Struik.

Currently Reading: War for the Union, 1861-1862: The Improvised War, Allan Nevins.